Donald Trump and the media’s ‘epic fail’

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Donald Trump talks to reporters in Detroit during the 2016 US election campaign.

Over the coming weeks there will be much navel gazing. How did we get it so wrong? There were so many uncertainties in the lead up to the 2016 US election result, but one thing is clear: journalism, just like the pollsters, failed.

Stuck in their offices in Washington and New York, American reporters failed to understand what drove Donald Trump’s popularity. They largely failed to ask the right questions, to provide the context and to properly scrutinise the extraordinary campaign run by the new president-elect.

Instead, buoyed by his clickable soundbites, the media gave Trump’s shocking misogynistic and racist imperialism a platform, then failed to take his growing support seriously. As Margaret Sullivan, media correspondent for the Washington Post wrote this morning: “Make no mistake. This is an epic fail.”

Death of print journalism

But the problem, worryingly, goes far deeper than newsrooms’ failure to fulfil their democratic duty to properly monitor Trump. That failure could at least, with a lot of self-examination, be fixed for next time around. The real issue is much harder to fix.

At the heart of divided societies in both the US and Britain is a newspaper industry in precipitous decline. The true “epic fail” is of the journalism industry as a whole: that the sector has been unable to find an alternative commercial model to the one that has sustained it for so long. As print readers migrate online, few newspapers have been able to persuade them to continue contributing to the cost of producing news; and neither have they been able to convince advertisers that their online versions are as worthy of investment as their print products.

Trump and Brexit as entertainment

One of the most egregious failings of the media in the US election was their chase of audience share at the expense of substantial reporting. Struggling with ever-declining advertising revenues, newspapers chased the stories that brought them the clicks.

As happened in the UK in the run up to Brexit, lots of American media outlets treated Trump as entertainment – his soundbites, as shocking as they were, provided fantastic content on social media. For months, many newspapers allowed Trump to get away with making blatantly untrue statements – and elevated those untruths to their front pages.

Mass job losses

Also worth mentioning here is that the failure to find a new commercial model has led to a shocking reduction in journalists. As reported by media commentator Roy Greenslade earlier this year, the number of people employed in the US newspaper industry has fallen by almost 60% since the dawn of the internet age – from nearly 458,000 in 1990 to about 183,000 in 2016. It is a similar picture in the UK.

This loss has been felt most seriously among regional papers which have either cut their newsrooms right back to the bone or shut up shop altogether. With the firing of so many regional reporters, a crucial understanding of both countries has disappeared.

Yes, the big media platforms flew thousands of journalists all over the US to interview supporters pitching up to rallies, but these reporters rarely got out of the campaign bubbles. They had not lived among the many communities that voted for Trump.

The real-life Biff Tannen

Locked up in their ivory towers, these journalists failed to believe that Trump would make it all the way to the White House because they did not know and understand the people that got him there. They reported on the phenomenon of the presidential race, Trump’s outlandish statements and Hillary’s failings, but they largely did not report on the frustrations that built such fervent support for the real-life Biff Tannen.

As for Trump, he holds journalists in contempt; regularly sneering at them throughout his campaign and pointedly describing them as “horrible people.” He decided from the outset to find an alternative way to his supporters – with great success, thanks to the very platforms that have been cutting into the revenues of newspapers. On Twitter, Trump has over 13 million followers; the New York Times’ total circulation is about 2 million.

Defending democracy

As we reflect on what went so horribly wrong, for the sake of democracy it is crucial that we also ask whether we can make journalism great again. We have to hope the newspaper industry finds a new way to sustain its existence. But we must also look to new models – of which not-for-profit news organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are one.

Philanthropically-funded journalism is not a silver bullet. It cannot plug all the gaps left by the storm that has battered traditional media for the past decade. But it is a force for good and it has to become a valued part of the news landscape.

The Bureau, with a small team of journalists but with the privilege of time to properly report our stories, has continually held power to account through our near seven years of existence. We have investigated the influence of money in politics, we have forced Washington to become more transparent about its covert drone war, we have reported on immigration in Europe, we have revealed many failings of our own government, we have shown how powerful PR companies have manipulated the news, and we have documented social failings in housing, in care and in police investigations.

Holding power to account

We have also striven to plug some of the blatant gaps in our industry. In 2017 we will launch a project that will deliver data journalism to our struggling local press. And with the National Council for the Training of Journalists we are also encouraging a more diverse industry by launching a Diversity Fellowship.

Every member of the Bureau understands the important part investigative journalism must play in the years to come. Now more than ever, we need strong, independent, fearless and deep reporting that holds power to account. We need journalists who have the time and the resources to properly investigate the stories that matter. On a day when many people around the world are feeling fearful of what lies ahead, we pledge to at least do that.

You can support the Bureau’s work by signing up to our newsletter to make sure you always get our stories; following us on Twitter or Facebook and sharing our reporting, or helping to fund our journalism by making a donation.

Photo of Donald Trump greeting reporters in the spin room following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan, by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Responses to this story

  • Bill Steinhour says:

    December 16, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    This article is a good example of how contemporary journalists and media have gotten it wrong and they still don’t even now understand why they failed. You express dismay that you did not keep Donald Trump on a short enough leash early on and continued, allowing him too much slack following through. Idiots! You, the media, are not responsible for controlling the candidates and election outcomes. Your job is reporting factually for the public, not programming it to respond according to pre-ordained political plans. Your performance has demonstrated your willful disdain for those marching orders. You are not worthy of this republic’s trust. You are finished.

  • Rupert Pitt says:

    November 17, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    A brilliant piece. The journalists failed to get out and investigate what was really happening in the UK during the referendum June 23, or in the US elections. Where print does provide good journalism with investigations and facts it will flourish. The circulation of Private Eye in the UK which provides well researched stories has gone up recently. Those print papers which just provide articles on which the reader can click will decline.

  • Drummond says:

    November 16, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Arrogance. We the media are all knowing all seeing all powerful. Then came Trump and the common man. They taught us a leason and hopefully we will learn from it. Arrogance killed the media.

  • Billy Way says:

    November 16, 2016 at 1:13 am

    I applaud TBIJ’s research on the drone war, for example, but you really don’t understand Trump’s support. It is astonishing that TBIJ would strongly imply that it favored one candidate over another (or better understands the fear of one over the other) when the current Democratic President exponentially increased drone strikes during his two terms and his would-be successor didn’t mention the tactic even once during her campaign.

    I will remain open to contributing to your organization once I see that it makes an effort to empathize with, rather than demonize those with whom it disagrees.

    Frankly, the same bias/arrogance/pretentiousness that helped get Trump elected is on full display in this article.

    When you say you want to make the media great again, really you mean a variation on the same lamentation every major media outlet has made post-election: “If only we had explained the news/issues better, then maybe these voters wouldn’t be so racist.”

    Ian Henshall/Jonathan Rush come closer than you do to understanding the reasons why Trump won.

    But I’ll share mine:

    It’s not racist to favor deporting criminal illegal aliens.

    It’s not racist to want to secure the border, particularly in an age of international terrorism.

    I’m only Islamophobic to the extent that I fear politicized Islam, which is the most virulently anti-liberal ideology. Is that unreasonable? Look around the world and tell me otherwise.

    I’m from a liberal East Coast media market, but the rural areas have an apt saying to respond to those who dismiss these obvious concerns out of hand:

    “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”

    Not to mention that I agree with everyone’s right to disagree and contest what I’ve written above. The American left does not feel the same way. I’m in law school (where one learns to argue) and my classmates are incapable of articulating and defending a position without ad hominem name calling, yet you wonder why the American left (and by extension: the media) failed to persuade the electorate this election.

    Ian’s comment below made me laugh out loud as well since I completely agree…even with the international/foreign policy issues that pseudo-intellectual people use to ridicule Trump supporters, there is an absolutely inability to articulate a compelling argument. As Ian alluded to…would it be a more educated, progressive, intelligent decision to trust Hillary Clinton to craft a “no-fly” zone in Syria after our absolutely horrendous/immoral/unjustifiable intervention in Libya where we used NATO (and did long lasting damage to the legitimacy of its original collective defense mission in the process)? We created a failed state in the process and exacerbated the very same migrant crisis used to lecture Trump supporters on morality.

    Hillary Clinton’s character is far worse than Trump’s words. Trump operated in liberal political/media/Hollywood circles for 3+ decades, then he became a serial rapist and racist overnight? And you lament that the media did not adequately explain his racism?

    Bottom line: you still don’t understand. My “friends” and “colleagues” keep saying there are no good Trump supporters. Let’s find out just how many minds they persuade with that line of argument in 4 years…

  • Ian Henshall says:

    November 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    The centrist pro-NATO media (not “liberal” at all, although they use liberal arguments to justify their wars) were so oviously biased in favour of Saudi-funded Clinton it was reminiscent of Soviet era journalism. To add insult to injury they then go on to smear their enemies (yes they do treat dissenters as enemies) as Russian spies. If Hilary had won we would have been a short step away from world war 3 as she paid back her Saudi financiers with an illegal “no fly zone” over Syria.

    Media wise the only solution is a media that is not owned by the corporations. There was never a golden age.

  • Jonathan Rush says:

    November 10, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Wearing my former professional PR/marketing hat, I was confident that the Tories would win the GE (remember that?) because of the feedback we Tory councillors got – I’m not betraying any confidence – from the party’s private polling of first time voters. This differed markedly from the ‘professional’ opinion poll firms. That said, I’m not sure the Tory leadership was so confident.

    I was less confident of a Brexit vote, indeed thought Remain would just about scrape through. But UKIP private polling consistently suggested otherwise, I learnt afterwards.

    I honestly thought that Clinton would win. The margin of error in the surveys by the ‘professional’ pollsters ought surely cover any deficiencies in their modus operandi? The same companies would surely have learnt from Brexit?

    I thought it fascinating that a Democratic private pollster, when interviewed on Bloomberg the morning after, confessed that there must have been something wrong with their method. She added that their opposite numbers (yes pollsters talk to pollsters) working for the Republicans were consistently predicting a Trump victory. I recall that when Trump relayed this, he was dismissed by the media. But I remember too that when Farage said exactly the same thing was happening in the US, as happened in England and Wales, he too was dismissed by the most media.

    I wonder, just wonder if the ‘professional’ opinion poll firms are dominated by the same left-of-centre people who also dominate the liberal media? Could it be the questions they asked respondents betrayed their own leanings and therefore they fell victim to the ‘shy Tory’ syndrome?

    I hasten to add I have no quibble with those who are left wing generally or just on any particular issue. They are perfectly entitled to their views, just as I am with mine.

    But if the foregoing is correct and I were still working in PR/marketing, I would be asking any opinion poll company seeking my business some tough questions.

    Have a good day y’all.